Everton maintained their excellent form on Saturday by securing a richly-merited 2-0 victory at Huddersfield Town.
Cenk Tosun struck ruthlessly across goalkeeper Jonas Lossl on 39 minutes to set the Blues on the way to a win that means they have collected 14 points from the past 21 available – and are unbeaten in three matches away from home.
The success in West Yorkshire was wrapped up when midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye arrowed a shot into the bottom corner with 13 minutes to play. Since beating Huddersfield in the reverse fixture back on 2 December the Toffees' form has been the sixth best in the Premier League – behind only the top five teams in the current standings.
Here, we identify five talking points from another authoritative Everton performance.
Everton perhaps edged the opening 39 minutes of this contest without being able to fully prise open their hosts.
There had been some encouragement, however, in the way the Blues were repeatedly finding space on the counter, with Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney – playing in a more advanced role than he has occupied of late – picking up intelligent positions and looking primed to capitalise on any lapse in the home team’s rearguard.
Huddersfield weren’t devoid of forward thrust either – but a combination of Everton’s defensive discipline and their opponents’ inability to conjure up a telling final ball meant the Terriers’ attacks were routinely coming up short at the clutch moments.
This match was on a knife edge then, when Walcott and Cenk Tosun did something only top-class footballers can. The pair grabbed hold of this match and steered it firmly in their team’s direction.
Walcott’s anticipation was excellent to read Rajiv van La Parra’s wayward pass. The former Arsenal player sensed his prey was in sight and went for the kill.
Walcott demonstrated exceptional balance and awareness to drift by defender Zanka and Jonathan Hogg – the midfielder lumped with the unenviable task of keeping tabs on Walcott - before slipping a pass forward to Tosun. The striker still had a lot to do but completed the job splendidly, manoeuvring the ball to outfox the hesitant Christopher Schindler then unleashing an early shot which caught Lossl by surprise.
It was the type of match-defining episode Sam Allardyce would have had in mind when he added Walcott and Tosun to his squad in January.
The manager, for his part, was rewarded for continuing with Walcott on the left after watching the winger hit the winning goal against Newcastle on Monday following a mid-game switch of flanks with Yannick Bolasie.
Moreover, Allardyce consistently drives home the message to his players that quality penalty-box service to Tosun is odds-on to result in the Turk converting.
Since he reclaimed his place in the team at Burnley eight matches ago, Tosun has aimed 13 shots at goal, with seven directed on target and five ending up in the net.
Captain Phil Jagielka was dissecting this match when he hinted at the galvanising effect the potent Tousn has on his teammates.
“We played some okay football in the first half in patches without testing the keeper,” said Jagielka. “But thankfully we got a breakaway and Cenk did what he does – scored after hitting the target.”
The value of a player who inspires that degree of confidence in his teammates cannot be overstated. Put simply, everyone knows that if they do their bit, they have a man up front who can settle the match in their favour.
Allardyce prefaced this fixture by expressing his belief that Everton have located the “right balance” in their team.
The boss was talking specifically about the way his side has created a solid base – they now have four clean sheets in seven matches and have conceded only once in the past four – from which their attackers can make merry when opportunity presents.
Allardyce, though, could equally have been talking about the understandings being formed all over the pitch: Jagielka and Michael Keane in the centre of defence, the potent Tosun Walcott combination and the renewed relationship between Gana and Morgan Schneiderlin in the middle of the pitch.
The reassuring and reliable presence of Frenchman Schneiderlin has a liberating effect on Gana, who occupied an average position directly behind Rooney (number 17 below) and galloped forward thrillingly to score Everton’s second goal.
Schneiderlin, in fact, embodies the equilibrium that exists in this Toffees team right now. The former Manchester United player was diligently covering in front of Seamus Coleman when the ball alighted with him on 76 minutes.
Schneiderlin’s first thought was to look forwards, where he spied the run of Oumar Niasse. The ensuing pass was perfect and 15 seconds later – and following the perseverance, skill and ambition of the trio of Niasse, Leighton Baines and Gueye – Everton had doubled their lead.
Allardyce appears to have struck a successful balance with his team selection, too. Those players responsible for stitching together this productive run of results are, by and large, being rewarded by being picked every week.
The former England manager is nevertheless careful not to shut the door on those on the outside trying to force their way in. Nikola Vlasic, asserted Allardyce, “deserved his chance to play” at Huddersfield.
Everybody knows where they stand, a situation which is conducive to a healthy and competitive environment. Furthermore, Allardyce’s refusal to make wholesale changes for 'experimental' purposes is indicative of a Club keen to lay its foundations through the vehicle of winning matches.
Nikola Grabs His Chance
You needed only witness the opening 30 seconds of this match to appreciate the depth of Vlasic’s determination to repay his manager’s faith.
The Croat was the only new face in the team following Monday’s 1-0 success over Newcastle. He linked with Coleman straight from kick-off and won his team a corner – at once serving notice of Everton’s intention to go toe to toe with a side whose need for the three-point currency on offer was ostensibly more urgent, and his own determination to leave a footprint on this match.
Vlasic has an infectious enthusiasm for football. His hard-running and willingness to try something out of the ordinary endears him to supporters, too.
Likewise, the 20-year-old’s substantial character is a compelling trait. If Vlasic errs, he does not dwell on the incident, he gets on with trying to rectify the situation.
The former Hajduk Split player is the archetypal team man. His average position on the pitch at Huddersfield points to his rigid adherence to his manager's gameplan, while Vlasic’s heat map (below) reveals a player prepared to go hunting for the ball when the time is right.
As Vlasic’s confidence visibly grew in line with his team’s increasing dominance, so his talent and inherent audaciousness came to the surface.
The way he controlled a pass into the box from Jagielka and backheeled to release the raiding Coleman all in one movement demonstrated a player blessed with no little skill and vision.
The burgeoning strength of Allardye’s squad was further exhibited by the efforts of the three players who came on after the restart.
Tom Davies immediately made himself known to Huddersfield’s back four by eagerly pressing high up the pitch and went on to deliver an energetic display.
The fit-again Ramiro Funes Mori’s over-my-dead body attitude was exemplified when he threw himself in the way of a stinging drive at goal.
And a penny for the thoughts of those Huddersfield defenders when they were greeted by the sight of the indefatigable Niasse coming on, determined to make the remainder of his opponents’ afternoons thoroughly miserable indeed. He did just that. The manner in which the forward chased down Schneiderlin's long pass and fought tooth and nail to engineer the room to cross in the lead up to Gana's goal was pure Oumar Niasse.
No Way Through
Jordan Pickford kept his 10th clean sheet of the campaign at the John Smith’s Stadium and this would surely have been the most comfortable of the lot.
Goalkeeper Pickford is piecing together a very good debut season for Everton – only five top-flight goalkeepers have recorded more shutouts this term.
The 24-year-old is one of only 10 players to have been on he pitch for every minute of their team’s Premier League campaign – and he has made 116 saves,
Pickford did not have much opportunity to add to his tally of stops in this match and for that he will be thankful to the organised unit in front of him.
Everton’s most extreme width was provided by their full-backs, with Walcott and Vlasic moving infield to join the Blues’ midfield trio in forming a considerable barrier in front of an increasingly familiar back four whenever Huddersfield had possession.
Time and again in the period immediately after half-time, when Huddersfield came out with the bit between their teeth and bent on going hammer and tongs for an equalising goal, the home team just could not pierce Everton’s rigid structure.
In turn, the home players’ obvious frustration progressively filtered into the stands, with the groans of the previous raucous locals growing louder with each misplaced pass.
When Huddersfield did manufacture a chance to face up to Everton’s defence they were met by a bloody-minded quartet.
Jagielka led by example, delivering an archetypal captain’s performance and finding willing allies in the likes of Coleman and Funes Mori – kudos to that duo for courageous second-half blocks in their own penalty area.
The raw statistics show that Everton completed 40 clearances to Huddersfield’s 16, while the 15 tackles attempted by the hosts was eight fewer than the number contested by their visitors.
Key to this was that Allardyce’s men were not merely setting traps for Huddersfield with a view to stifling David Wagner’s team. As soon as they snaffled possession, Everton flew onto the offensive.
That was illustrated most conclusively by Tosun’s goal – the first Huddersfield player to touch the ball following Van La Parra’s error was Lossl, fetching the ball from his net.
That incisive counter set the template for the second 45 minutes, with plenty of Everton’s most threatening work coming as the result of pinching possession high up the pitch and going straight for their opponents’ throats.
Hogg – and, in turn, his team – paid the price for struggling to overcome this tactic. The Huddersfield player resorted to dragging Walcott to the turf following a turnover of possession, with Hogg’s subsequent booking leading to his substitution for fear of the Terriers being reduced to 10 men.
There was a certain inevitably about the outcome when Gana lined up his shot at the edge of Huddersfield’s penalty area.
The same was true when he surged into the box at Bournemouth back in December to finish expertly beyond Asmir Begovic.
On this evidence, the Senegal international midfielder (heat map below) possesses the power and ability to score more goals for his team – something he acknowledged after the final whistle.
Allardyce has spoken of his belief that each member of a team has a responsibility – to one extent or another – to contribute to their side’s goals tally.
Quite simply, if you leave it all to your striker, he will eventually suffocate under the burden.
Gana’s effort here can be measured in very simple terms. For all that Everton were in charge of the match when he struck, there remained only one goal between the teams.
The Blues were one penalty-box ricochet or long-range blast from being hauled back onto level terms.
With a single swipe of his right boot, Gana as good as confirmed that Everton would travel back across the Pennines with three points, rather than one – or, worst-case scenario – none.
Equally, a midfielder proficient in all aspects of the game is worth his weight in gold. Allardyce recently likened Gana to N’Golo Kane, the exceptional Chelsea midfielder who was instrumental to Leicester City’s title success in 2015/16 and his current club’s championship-winning season last term.
Everton first-team coach Craig Shakespeare was one of the Leicester staff who used to joke that the Foxes set up their midfield with ‘Kante on the right, Danny Drinkwater in the middle and Kante on the left’.
Gana has the legs and desire to perform a similar act for the Toffees. Only one player made more tackles in Saturday’s Premier League matches than Gana’s five. He is second in the list for the entire season with 113 – nine more than Kante.
The player who made the most tackles on Saturday? Coleman with six. The Irishman was typically combative, vocal and adventurous during this 90 minutes. He will be scratching his head as to how he did not score, as well – Coleman was denied one on one by Lossl after Vlasic’s backheel, having earlier failed to make a clean connection when Leighton Baines’ free-kick found him in space at the back post.
Those goals will come, though. So too, you sense, will more Premier League points if Everton continue in this vein.